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GUEST COLUMN-When VR is as harsh as reality for women

It's almost 5 o’clock in the morning. I wake up. My husband and daughter are still in their dreams. I grab my phone and start to watch the series Black Mirror. After two hours, I'm too shocked to continue watching. Then I start to walk around in our living room to clear my head of some thoughts.

Black Mirror is a British television series that delves into the dark side of people and the impacts of technology. The fast-paced, thriller-style shows take audiences to see people's anxieties about interaction with others and their confusion about self-existence under high-tech daily lives.

The two episodes I watched were about reality technologies, such as virtual and augmented reality, and human interaction with the virtual world, which is also my profession.

The first episode of season three describes a girl who tries hard to increase her social evaluation in the virtual world. She then finds a way to raise her evaluations fast: attend a wedding between people who already have high evaluations.

As the bridesmaid she figures people will give her five stars after she delivers a touching speech.

In the process, however, she loses control in some situations, which causes her social evaluation scores suddenly to decrease. In the end, she is forced to take off the smart glasses due to her zero social scores. She then realizes that she can fully be herself and say what's on her mind.

Traditionally, the interaction between humans is based on respect and transparent identity, with respect a manner and symbol for civilization and transparent identity a code for interaction and knowing what behavior rules we should follow.

After the appearance of high-speed Internet, however, people's interaction has quickly extended from real life to the virtual world. Under the protection of online anonymity, what shouldn't be said easily in reality is said more often. People's respect for one another then diminishes.

Bullying in the virtual world has also become more and more severe with the rise of social media, more connections with social groups and the arrival of real-time evaluation systems.


A story called "My First Virtual Reality Groping" published on Facebook group for female VR developers happens to have been highly discussed. The writer is a female VR user who had just started to explore virtual reality.

While she was playing a famous multiplayer online VR game, a player detected her gender by hearing her voice and began sexually harassing her virtual role. "Suddenly, BigBro442's disembodied helmet faced me dead-on. His floating hand approached my body, and he started to virtually rub my chest," she wrote.

The user BigBro442 got more excited as she yelled to stop. He began to chase her character, touched her chest and even rubbed a sensitive female body part with his virtual hands.

"There I was, being virtually groped in a snowy fortress with my brother-in-law and husband watching," she wrote.

One well-known female game developer responded as the story was published. She shared that she feels immune from sexual harassment in games after more than 10 years in the industry.

But when it happens in the VR world, she added, the feeling of being assaulted becomes so real and uncomfortable.

According to a survey published in 2014, about 20 percent of respondents said they had seen online sexual harassment and 6 percent reported being harassed.

With more VR devices being shipped, sexual harassment in VR has caught attention and discussion. A panel talk about sexual harassment in VR social space was held at a game developer conference in March and some popular discussion comments showed up at online forum Reddit's Oculus board in May.

Google has revealed in August a new technology to prevent harassment in the VR world.

"Where our phones are the first things we touch when we wake up and the last thing we touch before falling asleep," reads the latest clip posted on Black Mirror's Facebook page. "Radiant, Seductive screens we so lovingly, endlessly gaze upon."

Every smart device is like a black mirror (screen). It forms the concrete walls in our virtual world. And the social rules, desires and almost real experiences in this world enlarge a sense of confusion and a criminal mindset among human beings.

Bullies and sexual harassment in VR reflect just one small corner of an iceberg. More and more problems are coming toward us, including VR erotica, VR privacy protection and the broadcasting of information on these platforms.

As venture capitalists throw vast amounts of cash into the VR and AR fields, we must also advance regulations related to ethics and behavior to stop the virtual world from becoming the next real crime scene.


Cori Shieh is secretary general of the Taiwan Association for Virtual and Augmented Reality (TAVAR). Shieh has promoted the VR and AR industry in Taiwan and co-founded the association. She is also the CEO and founder of CJC Interactive, a VR and AR market research and consulting company.